Magical thinking and Jesus

Context. Without context, a star can hover over a house, because that’s the way our creative understanding works. In the context of astrophysics, that star idea is nonsensical. Without context, Jesus was a Christian and the Jews hated him. In the context of his time and place, there were no Christians. He lived in the middle of an area occupied by pig-eating, beard-shaving, idolatrous Westerners. He lived in the middle of 200 years of constant uprisings by religious fundamentalists. Reading his words in context, it is obvious that he was a Jew, he hated the Romans, most Jews loved him, and Romans hated him.

Paul's legacy: nonsensical magical thinking

The genius of Paul was in seeing that by removing context and putting everything into the mythic realm, a universal religion could be created that wasn’t tied to the foibles of its anointed fountainhead. In this case, by decontextualizing Jesus, he became no longer a Jew (John says things like “Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him” – John 5: 18). He became no longer an adversary of Rome, no longer a Zealot, no longer gay… he becomes instead a mythic god, independent of the realities of history, independent of the laws of the universe. “Magic Jesus“, in the song by Tim Minchin.

Whether Paul understood this consciously and deliberately planned it, or whether he believed the visions from his own epileptic seizures, we may never know. But Paul is the creator of the post-Jewish “Christianity”.

The Gospels are written in an episodic way, highlighting some aspects of Jesus’ teachings, camouflaging other uncomfortable aspects, turning Jesus’ Jewishness upside down to make him more acceptable to Roman listeners and the Roman Empire, blending him with Mithras and Apollo. The Gospels swaddle him in miracles not just “from birth to death”, not even just “from womb to tomb”, but, in words originating in another context, “from the erection to the resurrection”. The very bookends of his life are so unbelievable that many people nowadays suspect he never existed at all.

So Jesus becomes a myth, a spiritual reality, an archetype. Like others before him in the preliterate world, he attains godhood. The historical person didn’t, of course – the historical person is dead and buried. But the story lives and grows and transmutes, constantly evolving to resonate more deeply with more people. All this is natural, inherent in human tendencies, and can be very useful for personal growth…

But magical thinking is a lousy basis for government policy decisions. Especially regarding the science curriculum for schools and universities.

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8 comments on “Magical thinking and Jesus

  1. Eric Alagan says:

    We are OUTRAGED that one priest’s dress code prevents us from celebrating Mass. Please visit and lend your support at my blog. Thank you.

    If I had in any way offended you with this comment/post, please delete with my sincere apologies. Thank you, Eric

    • Not offended, Eric, just amused. Your concern about “celebrating Mass” is all part of the “Magical Thinking” that this blog condemns.

      Lay not up for yourselves pie in the sky, where the clouds will make it soggy before you get there, but respect and enjoy the good things here and now on earth!

  2. Hmm, so the reason people can’t find Jesus in history is because they are looking for a Christian hated by Jews, and not for a Jewish zealot….lol

    • I believe you’re completely correct. Paul did a superb job of completely disappearing the Jewish zealot. It is worth a novel in its own right, if I have the time to research it properly. “The Gospel According to Paul”, perhaps. I know how to keep using Matthew as my protagonist.

  3. Terry Gorman says:

    Very interesting blog. In almost-complete agreement here, and learned a few things in the bargain. I would only take issue with one statement: That this magical thinking can be useful for personal growth. Yes, I believe it has that power as well, but inherent in embracing these ideologies I believe are dangers on both the social and individual level that outweigh the benefits that their adopters perceive and/or experience. A world without magical thinking, without the notion, to pick one of many, that there is a life beyond the one we experience, might just be a world where everyone truly appreciated each day, and made them all COUNT, resulting, I would think, in a quantum leap in human progress. To know that belief in things supernatural is NOT a prerequisite, to a moral and fulfilling existence, That the effort itself is its own reward. My perception is that many of its practitioners, unconsciously or heedlessly, actually work against the common good. Religion’ is a lousy word. It incorrectly, in the mind of most, I think, presupposes a ‘level playing field.’ I would argue that some ideologies bear more responsibility for this ‘retardation’ of human progress than others, though I hold none of them, at least the truly dogmatic Abrahamic religions, entirely blameless. Just as the word ‘cancer’ is a catchall for a myriad of conditions from relatively benign to inevitably fatal, so I see religion. But why pick only the ‘dangerous’ cancers to eradicate, if it’s within the realm of human understanding and effort to get rid of them all? A world devoid of these divisive labels would be a better world.

    Thank you for a very interesting and informative read. I will delve further when I have more time.

    • Thanks for the comments, Terry. I start with the observable fact that all children begin with a magical understanding of the world. This ability appears genetic and an intrinsic part of being human.

      So although I, too, would like to see everyone outgrow magic as their scientific worldview during elementary school at the latest, I would still keep those (purely internal) aspects of it that allow, for example, identification of some animal species as a personal talisman, or the yogic meditative state of being flooded with golden light as a way of encouraging physical healing, and so on.

      It would be a poorer (and arguably a less sane) world if we didn’t retain our relationship with archetypes, no matter how they manifest in individuals. Just so long as one’s inner psychic state isn’t confused with external reality!

  4. Terry Gorman says:

    Robin: I make no claim to an intellectual or highly academic background, but I do flatter myself that I have a sincere desire to understand, to know, to appreciate the world around me and inside me to as great a degree as the poverty of my senses allows. And I am never so pleased as when someone points out a deficit in my understanding of something, or even proves me entirely wrong, for that matter. Yours is an elegant articulation of where I was errant in this particular regard, as I have always had a nagging sense that my complete negation of the value of these archetypal notions was somehow flawed and even presumptuous, without being able to put a finger on why. And you rescued the ‘baby in the bathwater’ in a few short sentences. Thank you very much for what I believe will prove to be a valuable adjustment to my view of the world. Again, my time is at a premium these days, and I still haven’t come back to what I now expect will be a thorough read through your entire site, but am looking forward to doing so at the earliest opportunity.

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